January 25, 2015 – Don Chedi Festival – full fight video above
I’m standing in the ring, surrounded by gamblers and festival sounds, lights, and stalls, all under this incredible chedi that rises into the sky. During the first fight that was televised (maybe 3 fights in to the night) there were fireworks in the sky above the chedi. Brilliant. Now that I’m in the ring I feel a surge inside of me. The festival and chedi are in honor of King Narsuan, who is linked in my mind to Pra Rahu, who I have tattooed on my chest. It feels like I’m wearing armor forged specifically in the fires of this King and this diety.
The Don Chedi Festival is awesome. It takes place every year and lasts for two weeks. The town itself, Don Chedi, is named for the enormous and impressive stupa at the center; monuments where the bones of kings and monks are kept. The chedi was apparently built by King Narsuan in the 1500’s and the festival is to commemorate his very legendary battle against the Burmese atop an elephant. So there were elephants there as well.
It turns out that Don Chedi is a district in Suphanburi, which is Muangsingjiew’s – my opponent – hometown. So, despite having beat her quite decisively earlier in the month at Max Muay Thai in Pattaya, I knew that I had to be even more decisive in this fight given the multiple aspects of the nationalism, location, celebration and all that’s not to my favor.
Kevin and I drove out to the festival by ourselves, rather than leaving in the morning with the packed-full truck of kids, parents, associates, etc. So we arrived a few hours after everyone else and although we found the ring pretty quickly, it wasn’t until an hour before start time that we actually ran into the gym crew. The kid I call “Kitten Face” (actually named Podee) appeared in front of me to get his gloves laced on. There are usually “pre-show” fights of little kids, so it wasn’t terribly unusual to have him getting ready to fight so long before the start time. But unfortunately it turned out to be a scramble anyway.
There was a pre-show and then a televised portion. Podee started out the whole program and then we had fighters almost back-to-back leading up to and then into the televised portion. The guy from our gym who had driven everyone else out led me back to where all the mats were laid out and I saw that every kid fighting on the show – even Dtee, who was scheduled to be last on the card; full hours away – already had their hands wrapped and were oiled. This isn’t a bad idea when there are a lot of fighters from the same gym on a card, it just gets everyone streamlined and fight order on cards is always subject to change. Due to my arriving at a different time and the trainers going to the ring to corner fighters, I ended up wrapping my own hands for this fight.
Back by the mats where were were there was a guy holding a program and kind of calling out fight order, orchestrating the flow of everything, and he put the pressure on me to start getting ready just before the 8:00 “official” start time, which was the televised start. Once the cameras go on, there’s no time for lag and delays. So there was a bit of stress involved in that, just feeling like nobody was taking care of me but fully being capable of getting myself ready. One of my clinching partners came over just in time to rub some Thai oil on my limbs – by no means an actual massage but at least it got the look right.
It was a “hurry up and wait” scenario. My opponent was preparing just across a little driveway, on a separate patch of grass; the guy with the program gathered us and escorted us over to the ring to get our gloves on. When we got to the table I saw that Kru Nu had arrived (he’d been at Rajadamnern with the top fighter of the gym and drove up after) and Modt Ek, who corners for me on “away” fights sometimes, strutted over to me and took over the charge of getting my gloves on. He had such swagger, this “it’s okay, I’m taking over,” kind of attitude that was very cool. One of our guys was in the ring, so Kru Nu smiled at me but was busy calling out instructions most of the time. But there were almost two whole fights before it was time for me to go in the ring, so Muangsingjiew and I just sat a few feet apart on plastic chairs, ignoring each other. We’d been very friendly the fight before, so maybe it was both of us getting into a mindset to re-establish our intentions for the fight.
When the fight with our guy was over Kru Nu started hunting around for 1,000 Baht. He didn’t have any cash on him, apparently, as our top fighter had lost at Raja and Kru Nu was cleaned out. He wanted the 1,000 Baht to bet on my fight, which would have been additional to the sidebet, “winner takes all,” that was riding on the result. I reckon he made some good money if he managed to locate that 1,000 Baht, particularly if he bet on me in the later rounds because I started off looking awful (swung the odds against me, albeit not intentionally) and then just started to swallow the space between me and my opponent and ultimately took the fight. You can buy in cheap and win big in fights like that, if you’ve got your money on the right fighter. I ended up getting a huge “tip out” from this fight (5,000 baht) – something that I haven’t ever really experienced before – which likely came from gamblers who made a lot on long odds.
Just before going in the ring this big dude who was clearly familiar with my opponent (it’s her home town) but not really part of her gym, I assume, started kind of joking with me about my Sangwan Rahu sak yant. He pointed at it and made this big display about how it must have hurt. I smiled at him and just said, jep nit noi (“hurt just a little”) and he just kept going with it. He went on and on about how he would have fainted after the needle touched him, etc. I think he was trying to tease me but it worked in exactly the opposite way. I felt quite fortified by it as it reminded me of how the experience of sitting for the tattoo, of breathing and just accepting the pain of it for hours on end with Ajarn Pi’s chanting… the process of getting the tattoo made me stronger than I’d ever been. And this guy was just reminding me of that.
Muangsingjiew came with a f*cking plan this time around, and for the first two rounds it was working really well. She was doing combinations in threes, punch-punch-lowkick; she was landing that kick every time and I was getting turned sideways. I had in my own head before we went into the ring that I had to keep moving forward and use my lead leg as a block and way to creep in. Like Tyson says, “everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the face,” and my thoughts on that method went out the door. Sadly, what I’d planned to do was precisely the solution to what she was doing, but I wasn’t aware enough to push on with it when I was being challenged. Instead I just dropped it. Well, for two rounds I forgot. Then Kevin started calling for that front knee while I was in the corner and I could hear him. Kru Nu and the adult men from my gym who had money riding on the fight were all yelling for me to just grab her head and wrench her down. That’s like yelling “get the ball” at a soccer game, which my mom used to do when I was a kid. Yes, that’s the idea – but I couldn’t catch her in the right position…yet.
As the rounds went on she wore down from her early onslaught and her plan stopped working as well. My front leg started interrupting more and in her gradual tiring she slowed down. I just got stronger and as her technique faded and started to disappear, my advantages just swallowed up any lead she had gained for herself. The fifth round was just the seal and my corner signaled for me to just dance off the last minute or so. I saw them; I acknowledged it in my mind but fuck that. I didn’t believe that anything was certain in this fight, especially where it was being fought, so I kept pushing forward. While I wasn’t aware of it at all, it turned out that the referee was Kru Poun at Master Toddy’s Gym in Bangkok and is one of the trainers my friend Emma Thomas sees often. He told her the next day that the crowd went quiet in round 5.
I felt a bit badly for Muangsingjiew, only because I know exactly the disappointment that has so may angles to it: being her hometown, being on TV, being a nationalist holiday where she’s the Thai and the falang wins, being a technically superior fighter and losing on “heart” or drive… I don’t feel badly for winning, I just feel compassion for the disappointment she must have faced. I only owe it to her to respect what she is though; she doesn’t need me to pat her on the shoulder. She’s a great fighter.
The drive back to Pattaya was going to be very long and poor Jai Dee had been tolerating the incredible din of lights and competing sounds at the festival for hours. So we decided to leave right after my fight to get back home. I left my mat with Kru Nu so the group could keep relaxing on it, offered my Mongkol to Jozef (the other boys had been using mine but apparently Kru Nu arrived with one, so he said I could take mine with me) and I asked Pi Nu to pick up my fight money for me. Unfortunately, there were trophy cups awarded at the end of the night and I missed the honor of accepting the “most exciting fight” cup. Modt Ek jumped into the ring and accepted it on my behalf, which actually makes me very happy. And I got to pick up the cup the next day; it’s fancy.
On the way out Jai Dee got to see his first elephants. He’s totally socially inept and thinks that everything is his best friend, even snarling dogs that clearly aren’t looking to play with him. He was way into the elephants as they approached him but once they got close enough that he could see how enormous they were he decided he wasn’t sure about an invitation to play. We got a short video of his first encounters, below.